Farewell, Running

I’ve been running events for time and distance since I was eleven or twelve and joined the track team. At that time, I had no idea that I had inherited the blood disorder beta-thalassemia from my father’s side of the family. And it’s probably better that I didn’t know then. Despite being one of the slowest runners on the team, I loved the feeling of lacing up a new pair of running shoes and heading out alone in the cool early morning.

runners at start banner

Heading out with the pack

That feeling never left me. The willingness to push my perpetually-backsliding aerobic capacity and attempt to keep my legs and back pain-free when running regularly, however, has ebbed more than it has flowed. Generally it has taken strong social incentive (joining Baylands Frontrunners and wanting to see the fun Saturday morning gang) and/or big scary goals (the Honolulu Marathon, the Whidbey Island Half, etc) to get me up and out on the trails or roads more than occasionally. And even then, I strongly prefer a fast walk to a moderate jog. My body loves to move; but it hates to struggle. Especially to breathe.

Yet every time I do persist with running for more than a few weeks, I feel the benefits. Better sleep, stress reduction, and an easier time with aerobic activities that I enjoy more, like dance and martial arts. With my body always carrying less oxygen than the average person’s, I am supposed to be acclimated to my normal. And I want my normal to include not dizzy after a minute of sparring, not ready to puke after 30-second sprints, not needing to stop and breathe after moderate activity. So I decided this summer to give running another try.

Opportunities for timed distance runs, from 5k fun runs to half and full marathons, abound for the Puget Sound region. 3.1 miles seemed a little too easy to reach before summer’s end, and 13.1 or 26.2 miles a little too hard for the time I had available (about six weeks between travel and editing deadlines). So I picked the Cosmo 7k despite its being pitched to a demographic I feel little in common with. (The marketing icon is a young willowy blonde with ponytail, and a cocktail glass, with pink galore.)

With six weeks of training time available, I mapped out what my sustained speed for 4.35 miles would need to be in order to complete the course in under one hour. My baseline run/walk was not so far off the goal, though it did contain more walking than running and only lasted for twenty minutes. I set up the pedometer, got a fresh pair of shoes, and charted out each week’s interim goals (increased time and distance with variable pace). With the sun rising obnoxiously early, it was no problem to work in a run before office time began, even as the runs lengthened. And as expected, my ratio of jog-to-walk increased fairly quickly. Many run days I woke up looking forward to lacing up and heading out.

Slipping back into a runner’s headspace was the easiest part of the training period. Plan a route; fuel up properly; take enough water; stretch. Easy. And exploring the neighborhood provided unexpected gifts: smiling students on campus, ferns and old growth trees on the greenbelt trails, exchanged waves with dog-walking neighbors, wild rabbit sightings, the odd crow feather asking to be taken home. Since I was running alone (except for one marvelous jog around Seward Park with my friend Shannon), I tried out listening to music. Turns out that helps a great deal to keep me from looking at my watch incessantly and annoying myself with ‘are we there yet?’ thoughts. And of course there was time to play with characters or just let my thoughts wander. It even helped me write some running scenes for Maji, whose speed and love of the sport I will never match.

The last few steps

Although my stamina increased, my pace did not improve much. I grew up with fast walkers, and can maintain under 15 minutes a mile for many, many miles. But the best I can stretch too when running is a 12-plus, with sustained effort. That’s a jog, and a labored one at that. No gracefully loping past walkers with an easy stride for me. Muscles cramp. Joints ache. I soak in epsom salts some days, and spray magnesium oil on my calves before bed. Is it worth it?

By the fifth week, I gave myself credit for an honest effort and the right to decide after the event whether to hang up my shoes or not. Fortunately, the event went beautifully. It was fun to be in a throng of runners again, letting the fast crowd zoom off first and then working my way incrementally past the folks struggling harder than I was. To clap and thumbs-up the women cruising back on the return leg that paralleled the outbound leg, and share an encouraging word with others pushing towards the half-way point with me. Seeing my best time on the reader board at the finish felt good, too. But not good enough to make me want to keep dreaming up new incentives, to find the time and energy, to stay disciplined.

The following weekend, I tried my first aquarobics class ever. And it was fun! And it kicked my ass without leaving me in pain. So now I give myself permission to return to running if I ever miss it too much. Until then, I’ll be taking fast walks, getting to the dojo when I can, and splashing in the pool as often as possible.

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Fitness, Real and Fictional

Recently, a Facebook friend who has a fitness coaching business asked, “if you could NOT fail, how much weight would you want to lose this year??” She offered a range of response options, in five pound increments. Some responders went with specific, low or high number goals, all sticking to the question’s weight loss focus. So I felt a little like a smart ass replying,

My workout buddy, BoB

“Lose 5 of fat, gain 10 of muscle, increase strength, lung capacity, and flexibility.” But those really are almost always my fitness goals.

However, because weight’s such an inexact proxy for real changes in health or fitness, when I get focused I usually use specifics more like, ‘increase pull-ups from one to three, flip walk/run ratio for 5k, gain visible definition in shoulders,” over a reasonable time period, such as six weeks. Then I know I have to work diligently to do certain types of activity, in a short enough time to challenge me but also promise rewards (and fresh goals to set) at the conclusion.

When Sandy messaged to ask if I am doing anything to reach those goals right now, “It’s complicated” sprang to mind first. (Because smart ass answers always pop up first.) But actually, it’s just hard to give a simple answer to, right now. When I was practicing Aikido 3-4 times a week, plus catching one boot camp class and one Pilates class at my office’s gym, it was easy to rattle those off. And to check them off my to-do list without thinking about scheduling and self-motivation. Now, that’s changed.

My new normal involves keeping up with a full-time day job and meeting writing deadlines and other commitments to my publisher. Plus the usual self-care, home-care, and relationship-maintaining responsibilities. Not so different than than anyone juggling work, childcare or eldercare, or multiple freelance assignments and also trying to stay healthy. A couple hours a day at set times for exercise just does not fit in, right now. So what am I doing?

Well, I’m still trying to make it to classes on my days in the downtown office. Free is hard to beat, the instructors give me a push I need, and I’m in the building already. On weekends and home office days, I squeeze in 10-30 minutes, at a time, of whatever fits. Jogging if the weather and my allergies permit, sparring with BoB (Body Object Bag), plugging a PiYo (Pilates/Yoga exercise series) DVD in and following along. It all helps, and any of it makes me feel better than doing none of it. But the piecemeal nature does require me to keep track myself of which goals are on target, and which are slipping.

Writing-wise, this is actually a useful challenge. Between rounds of editing Strictly Need to Know (book one), I am working on book two, and using some empathy to make it more realistic. In book two, Maji Rios has started Reserve duty, and has to keep the remarkable fitness level required for her Army special operations work up to par, mainly on her own. Although she has the benefit of time and a dojo at home, she’s often traveling, and rarely back at Ft. Bragg for official training and skills maintenance. So we get a glimpse of what Sgt. Rios does when she’s away from home, on her own time, to stay in shape.

Most readers, like me, have never had to meet rigorous fitness standards to work as a first responder or a soldier (i.e., lives depend on your physical performance). But many of us grew up with some physical discipline (team sports, martial arts, dance) and know what it feels like to gain strength and skills over time. And some have had to work their way back from injuries or illness either to a level they didn’t realize they’d taken for granted, or to a ‘new normal’ that provides the benefits that their old physical routine did (confidence, endorphins, camaraderie).

Finally, at some point everyone experiences a shift in life that requires us to think about what we wish our bodies could do, how we want to feel, and what steps we can take with the resources we have (time, money, support, health limitations). Maji’s doing that right now, as I write, and so am I, on my breaks.

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Born Both, and Beautiful

What a rare treat it was to meet Hida Viloria, queer Latinx intersex activist and educator. At Seattle’s Elliot Bay Books, s/he read excerpts from her recently published memoir, Born Both, and discussed related issues with the folks who came for the event.

The book is not a light read, but a quick one -because Hida’s style is engaging and the chosen vignettes are compelling. The challenges that face intersex individuals, whose biology defies our social and legal insistence on splitting humans into two boxes (male or female) are well illustrated. Hida’s experience is specific, of course (because each individual’s intersectional identity is unique); and s/he spends a fair bit of time illustrating how those differences in experience influence divergent perspectives on the legal, social and medical issues related to intersex identity.

The initial, life-changing decisions for an intersex person begin at birth, when medical professionals feel obligated to assign a legal category to a baby – male or female, with no exceptions. For most intersex infants, there are no physical health implications from not fitting neatly into one box or the other. But many doctors continue to advocate for medical intervention (cosmetic surgery that impedes sexual function for the rest of the individual’s life, known as Intersex Genital Mutilation, or IGM) during infancy and during childhood development (generally sex hormones such as estrogen or testosterone), without consent of the child. This medical approach is based on the theory that every individual must conform to a binary gender identity in order to become a socially well-adjusted adult.

On one hand, Hida’s own story amply illustrates how frustrating (and sometime legally and physically perilous) it can be to attempt to live an authentic existence outside of the binary. It will resonate with any reader who feels that their humanity gets warped by the overwhelming social expections to behave ‘like a girl’ or ‘like a boy’.  No matter what culture you are raised in, being told that you must do/feel/act like this or that, because that is what a girl/boy/man/woman ‘naturally’ does, effectively eliminates self-determination. And the more we know of biology and sociology, the clearer the harm from jamming any human into a box becomes. Hida’s story details a series of attempts to fit into one box, the other box, and finally to live a hand-crafted life.

There is a great deal of food for thought about sex, gender and the politics of identity in Born Both. In terms of key advocacy points from the Intersex Campaign for Equality, two items stand out:
1.  Newborns who don’t conform to current medical standards for sexual dimorphism are just as beautiful and precious as those who do, and should not have cosmetic surgeries performed to “fix” them.
2.  Legally, if we are to label individuals by sex or gender, then a non-binary option is needed in order to recognize and protect the rights of individuals who are legally at risk if forced to choose between M and F.

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Maji Wears TomboyX

TomboyX, the Seattle-based maker of fabulous undergarments, had an event at its offices today to celebrate the launch of its new swimwear line.  The Treat Yourself Popup Show featured the new swimwear Lin, and offered guests free seated massage from Laura Brinkman, LMP, a table of cool and fun products from Retail Therapy, styling demos by Rock Paper Scissors Salon, baked treats by Petit Pierre and live music by Wonder Wood.

After meeting the business’ founders and some staff, reading their blog posts on badass women, the slow fashion movement, etc, and watching the marvelous ad with genderqueer model Rain Dove, I came to the conclusion that Maji Rios would wear TomboyX. They’re hella comfortable, and she’d like supporting the business’ human agenda.



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Running vs. Wine

Two glasses of wine? Or a twenty-minute run?
Yesterday I went for the wine. Today the run.

Happy feet

Running’s been less attractive the last few months, with rain and wind tamping down winter’s attempts to give way to spring. But it burns off the restlessness that winds up my mind and body, keeping me from sitting still before a computer screen or falling to sleep at bedtime. When I can’t get outdoors and move, or at least get indoors and unleash the beast with weights and boxing gloves, wine sounds increasingly attractive.

And I am a cheap date, granted. One Moscow Mule, or gin and tonic, or glass of Pinot Grigio, and I’m pleasantly buzzed. With a second, I’m no longer entirely sure what you just asked me, or whether my answer matched; but who cares? Followed shortly by sleepiness. So, if you really want my brain open and bouncing creatively about, feed me iced tea or coffee. Happy Hour is a temporary reprieve from caring about the fire in my belly, and how to harness it. And once in a while, that choice is the right one.

But today the run was much more satisfying. The breeze was piercing, but my body warmed itself. The last daylight turned the clouds pink, the daffodils looked cheery, and a young woman in a hijab returned my smile and wave with a genuine smile of her own as I jogged through her nearly-empty campus. My thoughts wandered freely, my body felt alive, and by the time I got home a hot shower and healthy dinner were all I needed. Tonight I’ll sleep soundly. Tomorrow my body will tell me to stretch more, and my brain will be clear. The fire in my belly will still be there, but it won’t hurt or feel out of control. And a glass of forgetting won’t seem nearly so tempting.



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Maji Lives!

Maji Rios began to live in my mind several years ago. As the drafts of the first book took shape, she became real to a variety of readers (thank you, beta-readers, consulting military readers, and critique group partners). I knew I was on the right track when folks said they wanted to hang out with Maji in real life, and speculated about what she would do in their real-life situations. With a bit more work on the story, I finally felt she was ready to meet the wider world of readers.

To my delight, Bold Strokes Books agreed to publish the first Maji novel, Strictly Need to Know. In mid-December, the paperback and e-book versions will be available to the public – people I don’t know, who have never heard of Maji. (An exciting and little bit terrifying idea) Later in the year, I’ll release a few excerpts to whet the appetite.

For now, here’s the very brief teaser (blurb):

When covert operator Maji Rios returns to her sleepy Long Island refuge after years of being anyone the Army needs her to be, all she wants is a quiet summer. Saving a gorgeous stranger from Russian mobsters on her first night home was not in her plans. Nor was waking up with her the next day, inside the notorious Benedetti family’s estate, already on the clock for her next mission.

One brush with danger can’t scare Rose diStephano away from her last weeks with her favorite cousin, Angelo Benedetti. How hard could tagging along to Maji’s martial arts camp be? Even if it means pretending that Maji is Angelo’s girlfriend, rather than the woman she is falling in love with.

Maji will do whatever she must to complete her mission. Infiltrate enemy territory? Check. Protect civilians from blowback? Check. Keep Rose from getting too close? Ouch.

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Cooking for Peace and Justice

Shortly after the election, I joined a group of neighbors to share notes on what constructive actions we might start, or continue, taking. In addition to big-P political action, we decided to start Soup Fridays. We have a large community kitchen, where we can enjoy meals together at cost (usually about $5 a head), already. Sometimes guests join us, but mostly we just use those meals to stay connected outside of work parties and business meeting. (This is co-housing, a form of intentional community that works very much like a self-managed condo association – but nicer.)

With the clear prospect of activism fatigue already looming, it was suggested that Soup Nights stay simple – the volunteer cook donates time and ingredients, and serves just soup and bread. They, or the group that night, decide what organization to donate the money raised to. Diners contribute whatever they can ($5 min suggested, but no one checks and no one is turned away). Since the idea is to strenghten our larger community connections, we’ve had more guests than usual. It’s been fun, and the dinner discussions lively.

My friend and neighbor Jane hopped onto the volunteer cook list right away, and then started adding meals to her repertoire. She’s been engaged in the big-P work too, marching and phone calling, and taking other actions. But like all of us, the feeling of being engaged in a constant battle is overwhelming and can turn to the negative far too easily. Jane wanted to support others doing work she believes in, in a way that expresses her love, with no overlay of confrontation. And so, she explained, she is “cooking for peace and justice.”

I’m glad Jane has found a way to feed and nourish that part of herself, and always grateful to anyone who wants to feed me, too. Sitting down to the table with friends new and old really does nurture my soul.

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Step 1: You Are Worth Defending

I know you are worth defending. If I saw you on the street, a stranger needing help, I wouldn’t doubt for a second that I should try.  And if I can see that in you, why can’t you? Why do you say, “I’d really like to, but…” when you mean, “No”? Why do you let 16 things other people want from you keep you from getting enough sleep, making yourself a nice meal, enjoying a few minutes of peace and quiet?

Self defense begins not with strikes or escapes from grabs or life hacks like how to kick the headlights out from inside a trunk. It begins with believing, in your core, that you are worth defending. That the care of you is as important as the care of everyone else. That your health, and happiness and safety all matter. Because you do.

When someone says they want to learn self-defense, I usually ask what kind of situations they want to be able to handle, and what kind of skills they want to aquire.  Some people want to know how to strike, and some explicitly resist learning strikes because they aren’t comfortable with the idea of hurting another person, on purpose.  In practice, reasonable force training should cover the same ground either way – awareness, evasion, verbal skills, and how to physically engage in an effective way, if necessary. Inflicting pain or damage simply because you can, or because you want to, is never the goal.

Martial arts training can be really helpful for developing body confidence, trusting that after enough repetition certain techniques will be at your disposal if you need them under stress. (And sometimes when you don’t actually need them, but your body responds to a false threat. Hang with martial artists, and the stories accumulate.) Most martial arts are also sports, with defined rules and protocols, and expectations for good behavior between players. Limits are built in for safety. Your sparring partner will avoid hurting you, and will stop when you tap out, or speak up.

So martial artists can build up quite a tolerance for certain kinds of contact and physical engagement that people who don’t train do not, and they may react more calmly in the face of actual threats. Whether that means walking away from an obnoxious drunk, or putting an asailant into an arm bar on reflex, sport training can be helpful outside the dojo.

On the other hand, only knowing how to strike approved body parts, or respond with a throw, or whatever the focus of proper play under controlled circumstances is for that art, can also be a liability. You can be very proficient at techniques, and still not know how to defuse a situation, use the law properly, find escape routes when needed, or just deal with the adrenaline that kicks in when real conflict with people not playing by the rules you are used to arises (at home, work, school, on the street, or elsewhere).

These sorts of skills require just as much practice as striking and grappling, and are critical to your safety. So why do most self-defense classes start with building physical confidence?  For me, it’s because once I know that if I have to, I can and will use my body however I must to defend me, you, or others, And I tuck that away like a concealed weapon. I can walk into a volatile situation and use my voice, meet the eye of a stranger on the street, calmly talk to someone agitated, or just be a solid physical presence. I don’t need to be aggressive or submissive when I know where my boundaries are, and what I’m capable of.

A situation with physical danger brings the need to defend right to the surface, and any training you have will click in. But what about the daily encroachments on your self care? Whether you love to spar in the dojo, or dread the thought of hitting anything ever, here’s your homework: “I am worth defending.” Look in the mirror, and say it out loud.

Now, pay attention for a few days to all the little ways you show yourself whether you believe this affirmation, or not. Are you sleeping enough, eating well, taking breaks when you need them – taking care of you? Do you feel undermined or beaten up by anyone you see regularly? Do you know where your boundaries are? Do you have tools to respect them yourself, and enforce them with others?

Self-care is self-defense just as vital as escaping a chokehold, or landing a knee strike, or ducking and covering during an earthquake. If you care enough about your safety to show up for a lesson in physical defense skills, you are ready to tune up your core strength. No, not your abs – your core beliefs about yourself, and your worth. Good news? Every day you have the opportunity to practice and improve your skills. And you’re worth it.

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Coalition Politics

Someplace in my attic, there is a box with a photocopy of the pages from Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology that provide a transcription of a speech Bernice Johnson Reagon gave at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival in 1981.

From the founder's page on SweetHoneyintheRock.org

From the founder’s page on SweetHoneyintheRock.org

Dr. Reagon, founder of the astounding a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, delivered Coalition Politics: Turning the Century to a group of women not having an entirely good time together that weekend. She did not speak to the exact situation at that event, or name names. But the words she spoke about how deeply threatening it feels to work in coalition with people who are not just like ourselves, and why it is crucial to do so, are just as valid today as they were then. Which is why, from time to time over the years I have rooted through those boxes to find that photocopy and read those words again.

On November 9, I woke with the refrain to Ella’s Song (written by Dr. Reagon using quotes from Ella Baker) in my head. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest; we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” helped remind me that day about who I am, and what I have done and can do. I felt just as restless, however, on the “how” part as I have for too many of my mid-life years.

The language we use to talk about non-violent civil action has changed a fair bit in the decades since I first considered myself an activist. And of course, the tools we use to share ideas and information are vastly different. But the core principles still apply; and three decades on, having turned the century a while back, I understand myself better.

Every effort I’ve ever been part of that made a lasting difference was a collaboration among people with varying backgrounds and common goals. The people involved often disagreed, got frustrated with each other, walked away, came back, persisted. And did not always win, together, what they sought to achieve. Sometimes we got less than we hoped for, and sometimes more than we dared to dream (jointly, or separately within the same coalition).

For me, having my intentions and methods challenged has been less difficult to take than having to step back from the tension between others in a group I had a stake in. I have a decent capacity to listen without expressing any squelching judgment, and to empathize with feelings and viewpoints that aren’t the same as mine. I can usually hold my center when someone trusts me enough to be open and honest, and share their experience. (Less easily when their experience is that I, specifically, have hurt them. Of course.)

But when Dr. Reagon says, “I feel as if I’m gonna keel over any minute and die. That is often what it feels like if you’re really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”, my reaction isn’t, “Yes! Exactly!” Was it, nearly thirty years ago? Sometimes, yes.

And still today the potential for conflict is enough to make me shake, despite all the tools at disposal. But mostly my gut response is, “Oh no! We need you! How can I help make this easier?” Fortunately, I’ve seen enough to know there are a variety of ways to do just that. Being a mediator, a facilitator, a hand-holder, a praise-giver, a listener, a donor of emotional and material support – I do those. It’s time to stretch beyond that comfort zone, but not to discount it. Because, like Dr. Reagon, I’m in for the long run.


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violence vs. force


Hamsa, symbol of protection (public domain image)

In preparing to teach self-defense in 2017, I’ve been going back to basics, to get clear on some principles that I think are fundamental to the responsible use of force.

Of the many ways force can be defined, the broadest is the most neutral: strength or energy exerted or brought to bear :  cause of motion or change :  active power; and it is only when the context of the abuse of power comes into play that force is associated with, and in fact equated to, violence.

So, you want to stand against violence, without resorting to violence yourself. How do you know what constitutes violence?

According to the World Health Organization’s Violence Prevention Program:

the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

The WRVH also presents a typology of violence that, while not uniformly accepted, can be a useful way to understand the contexts in which violence occurs and the interactions between types of violence. This typology distinguishes four modes in which violence may be inflicted: physical; sexual; and psychological attack; and deprivation. It further divides the general definition of violence into three sub-types according to the victim-perpetrator relationship.

  • Self-directed violence refers to violence in which the perpetrator and the victim are the same individual and is subdivided into self-abuse and suicide.

  • Interpersonal violence refers to violence between individuals, and is subdivided into family and intimate partner violence and community violence. The former category includes child maltreatment; intimate partner violence; and elder abuse, while the latter is broken down into acquaintance and stranger violence and includes youth violence; assault by strangers; violence related to property crimes; and violence in workplaces and other institutions.

  • Collective violence refers to violence committed by larger groups of individuals and can be subdivided into social, political and economic violence.

If you are interested in working to make your world, or community, or home – or self – safe from violence, a definition this broad and detailed presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is having to look beyond physical expressions of violence and seek to address the conditions that lead (or allow) humans to harm one another (and animals, and ecological systems, if you want to go really broad). The opportunity? Seeing how many ways to address them are available to you, everyday, once you look.


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